The following short reviews of films screening at the 2011 Vancouver International Film Festival are by Guy Dixon, Rick Groen, Liam Lacey, Marsha Lederman, Dave McGinn, Fiona Morrow and Jennie Punter. Star ratings are on a scale of zero to four.
A Simple Life Anne Hui (Hong Kong) 4 STARS
Based on a true story, Ann Hui's pitch-perfect film centres on the relationship between Hong Kong film-producer Roger (Andy Lau) and Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), a servant to Roger's family over generations. After suffering a stroke, Ah Tao decides it's time to move into a nursing home, where her "private room" turns out to be a cubicle and the owners are busy exploiting China's flexibility on making a profit. Despite this depressing backdrop, Hui crafts an elegant, deeply affecting portrait, devoid of mawkish sentimentality. The fierce bond between Roger and Ah Tao is played beautifully, with the elderly woman's personality allowed to blossom as their relationship changes. The cast – including a number of non-professionals – is exemplary, while Hui's deceptively simple, naturalistic direction marks her definitively as a major force in Hong Kong cinema. F.M.
Oct 2, 6.15 p.m., Granville 7; Oct 3, 3.30 p.m., Granville 7
The Artist Michel Hazanavicius (France) 4 STARS
Black-and-white and mostly silent, this Cannes crowd-pleaser is an homage to the movies when the screen was still silver. Mixing French stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo with an American cast (John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller) this twenties-set fantasy follows a Douglas Fairbanks-like dashing movie star, George Valentin (Dujardin), adored by women and accompanied by his clever Jack Russell terrier. But George becomes a has-been when the talkies arrive, until he's helped out by an ingénue, Peppy Miller (Bejo). With elements of A Star Is Born and Singing in the Rain, The Artist is a rarity, an ingenious crowd-pleaser. L.L.
Oct. 13, 7 p.m., Granville 7
Crazy Horse Frederick Wiseman (France/USA) 3 STARS
The Parisian haute-erotic cabaret receives Frederick Wiseman's unwavering, fly-on-the-wall treatment. Whereas much of the documentary veteran's previous work takes viewers within publicly unseen worlds, Wiseman can't help spending much of this film watching the show as patrons of the club would see it. He knows that, as with any erotic performance, viewers are impatient to get to the scintillating bits, and these are spread throughout the film. And after two hours, you become thoroughly erotically satiated. Another taut nipple? Yeah, whatever. Yet the stage lighting in the club is simply incredible, making Wiseman's job easy; the performances typically look like the opening credits of a James Bond film brought to life. There is also a world backstage, which Wiseman shows in his usual detail, showing that the world of cabaret, even at this high level, can be pretty stifling. G.D.
Sept. 29, 9:45 p.m., Vogue
Desert Riders Vic Sarin (Canada) 3.5 STARS
There is no pretense, not for a moment, that this is going to be a sweet story about graceful camels and the boys who ride them through eye-pleasing deserts. From the opening shots, this film trains its eye on the ugly truth of the so-called sport of kings. Atop those camels are the lightest jockeys a wealthy camel farmer can buy: young boys acquired for next to nothing from deeply impoverished families in Pakistan, Sudan or Bangladesh, then taken to the United Arab Emirates, where they live in appalling conditions and are essentially starved; the lighter the boy, the faster the camel. When questioned about the sport, one camel owner explains it is a celebratory tradition, like having a Christmas tree in the West. The truth, as Vic Sarin unflinchingly demonstrates, is much darker: a tale of human trafficking, abuse and betrayal among nations, and families. M.L.
Oct. 1, 9:30 p.m., Granville 5; Oct. 2, 12:20 p.m., Granville 1
Footnote Joseph Cedar (Israel) 3 STARS
A father-son academic rivalry provides fodder for this caustic comedy set in the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A bitter old professor, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba), has worked for decades in obscurity, while an unscrupulous rival has stolen his thunder; his reputation rests on a mere footnote in someone else's work. Meanwhile, Eliezer's son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), has become an academic superstar by producing popular books on Jewish culture. The two men are set against each other with the impending announcement of the annual Israel Prize. Israeli-born, New York-educated Joseph Cedar ( Beaufort) won the Cannes screenwriting prize for his mordant script about mountains, mole-hills and the popular biblical theme of mean fathers and rebellious sons. L.L.
Oct. 4, 7 p.m., Vogue; Oct. 11, 4:15 p.m., Vogue
Give Up Tomorrow Michael Collins (U.K./USA) 3.5 STARS
An extraordinary miscarriage of justice makes for an exceptional film, as director Michael Collins documents the wrongful conviction of Filipino teenager Paco Larranaga in the 1997 abduction, rape and murder of sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong. Despite overwhelming evidence that Larranaga was hundreds of kilometres from the crime site, he was convicted, along with six others, and sentenced to life in prison for the high-profile crime. The Larranaga family appealed to the Supreme Court, but rather than the freedom they had hoped for, the sentence was elevated to death by lethal injection. The suggestion of political corruption hangs heavily as Amnesty International, the United Nations and the government of Spain chime in. Through frank interviews with family members and Larranaga himself (who is related, by marriage, to the film's producer), grainy jailhouse footage and archival media reports, the staggering facts of the case are laid out. Prepare to be outraged. M.L.
Oct. 6, 6:40 p.m., Granville 4; Oct. 7, 3:20 p.m., Granville 5; Oct. 13, 10:30 a.m., Granville 7
Le Havre Aki Kaurismaki (Finland) 4 STARS
This note-perfect neo-realist fairy tale from the comic Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki follows a self-styled bohemian shoe-shine man, Marcel (André Wilms), who lives with his wife (Kati Outinen) in the French port city of Le Havre. When his wife learns she's suffering a serious illness, she hides it from her husband. Meanwhile, Marcel befriends a refugee boy from Africa, and uses all the resources of his network of friends to keep the kid free from the dogged police detective (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). Both playful and serious, Kaurismaki's film is an old-fashioned celebration of the fellowship between the powerless and the rejected. L.L.
Oct. 8, 6:20 p.m., Granville 3; Oct. 10, 11:40 a.m., Granville 3
I am a good person/I am a bad person Ingrid Veninger (Canada) 3 STARS
The Toronto indie cinema queen returns to TIFF with an intimate, low-budget family drama about artistic pretensions while unfolding the story of a fraying – or maybe evolving – mother-daughter bond. An extroverted experimental artist (Veninger) and her reserved 18-year-old daughter (Veninger's own daughter, Hallie Switzer), who just learned she's pregnant, temporarily part ways during a European trip. Veninger mingles her low-key script with spontaneous scenes (the movie was filmed during an actual journey), to create a realistic, funny, touching picture of life's "in-between" moments. J.P.
Oct. 7, 9:30 p.m., Granville 1; Oct. 9, 12:20 p.m., Granville 1
In Darkness Agnieszka Holland (Canada/Germany/Poland) 3 STARS
In darkness, indeed. Much of this film unfolds beneath the cobbled streets of wartime Lvov, down within the murk and rat-infested mire. There, a Polish sewer worker, Catholic in religion and anti-Semitic in attitude, hides a small group of Jews from both the occupying Nazis and their local allies. Initially, his lone motive is money – the hidden are paying him well for their rancid sanctuary. But, over the months, a human bond develops and, even in the depth of the sewers, he begins to see the moral light. Yes, the screenplay is a bit too schematic and symbolically convenient (the Jews' refuge lies directly under a church), but Holland's direction is unflinchingly graphic. Poland in that period was a maelstrom of shifting alliances and conflicting tensions, yet she fuses the separate strands of the narrative – a suspenseful tale of jeopardy and a study in situation ethics – into a compelling, if not always convincing, portrait of shared peril. R.G.
Oct. 5, 2 p.m., Vogue; Oct. 10, 6:45 p.m., Granville 7
The Kid With a Bike Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium/France/Italy) 4 STARS
The latest from Belgium's brother team is another modest classic about people, especially kids, on the margins, and the power of compassion to change lives. When a ginger-haired 11-year-old ruffian named Cyril (Thomas Doret) makes a run from the children's home where he's been placed by his father, he ends up rushing into the arms of a hairdresser, Samantha (Cécile de France), who's waiting in a doctor's office. Moved by the kid's desperation, she finds his lost bike and ends up becoming his weekend foster mother. Instead of bonding easily, though, she finds herself fighting to save the kid from falling in with a juvenile gang. Tautly structured and tense, this is stripped-down story telling that's right on target. L.L.
Oct. 14, 7 p.m., Vogue; Oct. 14, 9:45 p.m., Vogue
Lost Bohemia Josef (Birdman) Astor (USA)
3 1/2 STARS
For more than 100 years, artists of every sort lived and worked in studios built over New York's Carnegie Hall at the urging, the story goes, of Andrew Carnegie's bride after their culture-heavy European honeymoon. As Lost Bohemia begins, the filmmaker, a resident himself, travels to his neighbours' suites to interview a delightful assortment of mostly aging artists with stories that could keep an audience enraptured for hours: Judy Garland singing on the roof in the middle of the night; Marlon Brando moving out because he got tired of all those knocks on his door from people seeking autographs – or something a little more intimate. But the creative haven is under threat: Eviction notices are issued as the Carnegie Hall Corporation decides to redevelop. The tenants fight, but the outcome seems inevitable. In this sad, superb film, Astor brings the place to life again, making the film's conclusion all the more devastating. And the film seems to take on the characteristics of the people it portrays: a little shaky at times, a little quirky, but very smart and compelling and really just lovely. M.L.
Oct. 3, 2:50 pm, Granville 1; Oct. 9, 10:30 am, Granville 7.
Michael Markus Schleinzer (Austria) 3 STARS
First time director Markus Schleinzer, a long-time casting director for Michael Haneke, takes us to a place where few people want to go. The title character is a 35-year-old bachelor insurance agent who has an abducted 10-year-old boy locked up in the basement of his suburban house. Meticulously made, with sharp thriller jolts, the film goes to pains to demonstrate the oddly "normal," almost parental, aspects of the man's relationship to the boy: They watch TV together, do jigsaw puzzles and even have an occasional outing. Dreadful as the subject matter is, the authenticity of the performances and the skill of Schleinzer's filmmaking are difficult to deny in this portrait of a monster as the bland guy next door. L.L.
Sept. 30, 11 a.m., Granville 2; Oct. 4, 9:15 p.m., Granville 1; Oct. 14, noon, Granville 4
Miss Bala Gerardo Naranjo (Mexico) 3 STARS
Blinkered innocence is the sole point of view, corrupt and deadly experience is the sole content. The whole film unfolds from the perspective of a naive Tijuana teenager who, after signing up for the local beauty pageant, finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time – witness to a night-club massacre perpetrated by a gang of narcos. She does the sensible thing and goes to a cop but, in Naranjo's take on Mexican society, sense is an endangered commodity – the cop leads her straight to the gang's vicious leader. What follows is an always violent, often surreal ride through the thickets of widespread corruption, with the audience sometimes left as confused and disoriented as the poor girl. But there's no mistaking the moral of this amoral tale: Even when innocence is crowned, injustice reigns. R.G.
Oct. 4, 9:30 p.m., Vogue; Oct. 7, 3 p.m., Granville 3
No More Fear Mourad Ben Cheikh (Tunisia) 2 STARS
This film, about the uprising in Tunisia that launched this year's revolutionary Arab Spring, premiered – at Cannes – only about four months after the chronicled events. Unfortunately, it shows. Rather than raw, this project feels rushed. The result is a difficult-to-follow mishmash of compelling interviews and extraordinary footage that simply can't resonate without context. The characters are not properly identified; the viewer has no idea what sort of timeline is being documented; and anyone not very familiar with Tunisian politics will be lost at times. The filmmaker may have been going for a collage effect – there's a collage that figures prominently in the film – but this collage needs a proper frame before it can be considered great art. M.L.
Oct. 7, 6:45 p.m., Granville 2; Oct. 11, 3:15 p.m., Granville 4; Oct. 14, 10:45 a.m., Pacific Cinémathèque
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey/Bosnia-Herzegovina) 4 STARS
Though not for the timid, this 156-minute slow-burner from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan ( Distant, Three Monkeys) is something special in its carefully controlled tone and underlying humanity: A forensic procedural that plays like a Russian novel unfolding within a 12-hour period, it follows a convoy of cars carrying a young doctor named Cemal (Muhammet Uzuner), a public prosecutor, a police chief and a couple of other cops, along with a pair of confessed murderers, who are wandering around the Anatolian countryside trying to find where a murder victim is buried. Eventually, the corpse is located and an autopsy takes place at a local morgue, while we learn a lot about adultery, the hope for children and the vast spaces that separate people who work side by side. L.L.
Sept. 29, 3 p.m., Granville 3; Oct. 5, 9 p.m., Granville 3; Oct. 6, 9 p.m., Granville 3
Pina Wim Wenders (Germany/France) 3 STARS
3-D will never look fully real. From Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which tried to make the exploration of prehistoric cave paintings seem within arm's reach, to this tribute by Wim Wenders to German choreographer Pina Bausch, the effect will always feel like looking through an old View-Master. And that doesn't matter, because 3-D cinema can be stunning in its own way. Bausch's work, as performed by her dance company Tanztheater Wuppertal, is shot exactingly by Wenders, who captures everything from the largest, set-filling gestures to the subtlest facial nuances in ways impossible in 2-D – and of course in far closer detail than seeing the dances performed live. Bausch died suddenly of cancer during the making of the film, and the loss is quietly felt throughout. By far the best scenes are when her contemporary, story-telling dances are performed around the city of Wuppertal, particularly with the hyper-Euro Schwebebahn floating monorail in the background. G.D.
Oct. 3, 7 p.m., Park; Oct. 5, 2 p.m., Park
Policeman Nadav Lapid (Israel) 2 STARS
Class struggle – not the Palestinian issue – is the catalyst for the tension in this politically charged examination of contemporary Israel. The drama contrasts a group of smug, macho Israeli anti-terrorist officers – who have been involved in a controversial action involving the Arab enemy – with a group of idealistic Israeli revolutionaries, led by a petite, committed young woman (Yaara Pelzig). They're brought together when the revolutionaries carry out an action at a wedding involving a wealthy Israeli family. While the performances are very strong, the material gapes with unexplained motivations and under-explored characters. The film poses some interesting questions: What happens when the enemy comes from within – familiar, yet unfamiliar in the context? But this issue, which could be the heart of the story, is never explored in any meaningful way. M.L.
Oct. 9, 6:45 p.m., Granville 2; Oct. 10, 1:15 p.m., Granville 2; Oct. 13, 9:30 p.m., Granville 1
Sing Your Song Susanne Rostock (USA) 3.5 STARS
For audiences just a little bit familiar with Harry Belafonte, what the name no doubt brings to mind immediately is his signature Day-O. But there's a lot more to Harry Belafonte than the Banana Boat Song. The American calypso star has been an activist on the front lines of the civil-rights movement, the fight to end apartheid in South Africa, famine relief in Ethiopia. His political position wasn't always popular: He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and ostracized by some for his views on the U.S. war in Iraq. What this superb film makes clear is that Belafonte was no part-time, opportunistic protester-for-publicity; he was a committed activist who has devoted as much time and passion to the cause as he has to his music career. Produced by his daughter Gina Belafonte (along with Canadian Michael Cohl and others) in co-operation with Belafonte himself, the documentary is unsurprisingly glowing in its treatment, but what emerges is so much more than the story of one man. M.L.
Oct. 12, 6:30 p.m., Granville 1; Oct. 14, 2:30 p.m., Granville 4
The Skin I Live In Pedro Almodovar (Spain) 2 STARS
More pot-boiling from Spain's master of convoluted melodrama, Almodovar's adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel Mygale is a gender-bending sci-fi hybrid starring Antonio Banderas as a plastic surgeon and grieving widower. Holed up in his Toledo mansion with his tart-tongued housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) and a beautiful imprisoned woman (Elena Anaya), he develops a new synthetic skin which can help burn victims. The revelation of a gruesome back story seems, often, to serve as much for laughs as for dramatic heft in what is one of Almodovar's lighter efforts. L.L.
Sept. 29, 7 p.m., Vogue; Sept. 30, 1:30 p.m., Vogue
Sleeping Beauty Julia Leigh (Australia) 3 STARS
Creepy but visionary, novelist Julia Leigh's debut film is about a milkily pale university girl (Emily Browning) who takes on a strange kind of prostitution. She's drugged and, in her comatose state, old men go to bed with her to do whatever they want, short of penetration. Shot in a series of single-take scenes, it has the unnerving quality of watching some weird anthropological rite, as the girl puts herself into a near-death state for old men who seek to gain life through access to young flesh. At least part of this oneiric fantasy seems to be about the idea that we're also responsible for what we choose not to know. L.L.
Oct. 7, 9:15 p.m., Granville 7; Oct. 9, 4 p.m., Granville 7
Starbuck Ken Scott (Canada) 3 STARS
Patrick Huard stars as David Wozniak, a middle-aged screw-up who finds out he has more than 500 children thanks to sperm he donated over 20 years ago in this charming Québécois comedy from director Ken Scott. Tired of his slacker lifestyle, fed up with being the black sheep at his family's butcher shop and with a girlfriend who is pregnant, David sets out to become a guardian angel for his children, who only know him as a very, very supportive stranger. Scott deftly balances David's ridiculous mission with moments of real tenderness, making for several heartfelt moments that help carry you past the fact that such a situation couldn't possibly have the ending it does. D.M.
Oct. 7, 6:30 p.m., Granville 7; Oct. 8, 7 p.m., Vancity; Oct. 9, 12:45 p.m., Granville 7
Take This Waltz Sarah Polley (Canada) 3 STARS
Polley takes a lot of risks in this, her second feature as writer-director, the story of an anxious woman (Michelle Williams) whose journey of self-discovery leads her away from a comfy marriage (to Seth Rogen) toward an alluring neighbour (Luke Kirby), and eventually deeper into herself. Unfortunately, not all of the risks pay off. Williams's fearless take on a not-conventionally-likeable heroine can be wearying; the story arc, though precisely detailed, is small; and the pace might be too thoughtful for some (i.e., slow). But you've got to admire Polley for tackling a subject so thorny – an unhappy person who can't recognize her own part in it – and sticking to it without compromise. J.S.
Sept. 30, 6:30 p.m., Vogue; Oct. 6, 4 p.m., Vogue
This is not a Film Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (Iran) 3 STARS
Put under house arrest and banned from filmmaking, Iranian director Jafar Panahi ( The Circle, The White Balloon) did the only thing he could do: He made a film from his apartment, and sneaked it out of his country on a USB stick in a cake. This 75-minute home movie, shot by his colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and partly on Panahi's iPhone, is deft and ironic, mixing banal reality with poignant metaphor in a typically Iranian style. Between breakfast, phone calls and caring for his daughter's iguana, he describes and acts out the film he wants to make, while New Year's fireworks explode in the streets outside his building. L.L.
Oct. 8, 2:30 p.m., Granville 4; Oct. 13, 7 p.m., Granville 2
David York (Canada)
"Why would I let you?" Ludwig Wiebo asks the director looking to film his Albertan commune. It seems a fair question from a man who spirited his family and friends away to live in self-sufficient isolation. But Wiebo is also a charismatic religious leader – flamboyant at least in his use of language and a splendid set of whiskers – and the opportunity to proselytize gets the better of him. It's hard not to feel for this community, who discovered after buying Trickle Creek Farm that they only own the topsoil, and that the rampant oil and gas industry can do what it will from beneath. As the women suffer miscarriages and the animals spontaneously abort, Wiebo realizes they are on toxic ground and his fight back begins. Then a teenage girl is shot dead on his property and Wiebo's reaction makes your blood run cold. With smart use of news footage, and no economy in time spent with his subject, David York presents a surprisingly candid glimpse into the heart of a notorious Canadian. F.M.
Oct. 3, 6 p.m., Granville 5; Oct 5, 12:30 p.m., Granville 5
Without Mark Jackson (USA) 3 STARS
Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen) arrives on a Pacific Northwest island to take up a job as isolated as the landscape. As respite caregiver to the all but vegetative Frank (Ron Carrier), she must see to his every need while following a set of absurd house rules that run to a small book. Meanwhile, her iPod keeps taking flight and the advances of the local carpenter take on a sinister turn. Mark Jackson's directorial debut steers well clear of schlock-horror territory. Rather, it's a study in the disintegration of self: The ghosts that haunt Joslyn are emotional, her "madness" a desire for psychosexual catharsis. Taut and uncompromising – if obviously inspired by Polanski's Repulsion – this is a provocative, disturbing affair that exploits both its actors and milieu to their full potential. F.M.
Sept. 29, 2 p.m., Granville 2; Oct. 2, 7 p.m., Granville 1; Oct. 3, 1:30 p.m., Pacific Cinémathèque
For the VIFF 2011 full schedule click here.